FROM THE ARCHIVES– Alexander Payne: Portrait of a Young Filmmaker
Alexander Payne’s breakthrough satire Election is one of the entries in the Film Streams series Hollywood Does Politics. Election is also the film that began my association with Payne. As a film programmer in Omaha I had screened his student thesis film The Passion of Martin. His talent was obvious. I next encountered his work as a film consumer when I went to go see his feature debut Citizen Ruth at the Dundee Theatre. But the first time I came to him and his work as a journalist was with Election. I read that he was in pre-production on this comedy set at an Omaha high school and I contacted him and we arranged to meet for an interview. We had a very long conversation at McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe. At some point, I believe before we met for the interview, he also shared the screenplay for the film, which he was then getting ready to shoot. The screenplay by him and Jim Taylor was really smart and funny. Sharp observations throughout. A crazy mix of angst, pathos, crisis, obsession and mendacity that somehow totally worked as comedy. I ended up interviewing Matthew Broderick and missed an opportunity to interview Reese Witherspoon as well. That first long interview with Payne, plus my reading of the script and seeing the finished film became the basis for this first story I wrote about Payne. Also informing the story were my having seen Passion of Martin and Citizen Ruth. Here is that story. It is part of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of that book releases September 1.
That first interview happened in the late summer or early fall of 1996 and that first story appeared at the start of 1998. Many more interviews and stories relating to Payne have followed. Too many to count. All the way up through and including his new film Downsizing. That body of work accrued over 20 years is the basis for my book.
If you’ve never seen Election do yourself a favor and go see it on the big screen at Film Streams. It’s playing July 16, 18 and 20. For showtimes and tickets and for the complete series schedule, visit–
Alexander Payne: Portrait of a Young Filmmaker
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in Jan. 22-28, 1998 issue of The Reader
Darryl Zanuck. Fred Astaire. Henry Fonda. Dorothy McGuire. Montgomery Clift. Marlon Brando. Sandy Dennis. Nick Nolte. Enduring film icons and Nebraskans all. Now add the name of writer-director Alexander Payne, thirty six, to this list of native sons and daughters who have made their mark in cinema. Born and raised in Omaha, Payne made an impressive feature debut with the funky 1996 abortion comedy, Citizen Ruth, and is sure to make waves again with his second feature, Election, which wrapped shooting in Omaha December 15 and is slated for a summer release.
The made-in-Omaha Citizen Ruth netted wide critical praise for its satiric take on the pro life-pro choice debate, revealing Payne to be a keen social observer with an ironic sensibility. Payne, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, is a gifted artist. He’s smart, witty, confident, yet refreshingly grounded. He knows exactly what he’s after and how to get it. He’s also brash and passionate enough to make delightfully subversive films far outside the Hollywood mainstream. Those who know him admire his agile mind, him unmannered sincerity, his barbed humor.
He has the cachet to make films anywhere, but continues coming back here to shoot his quirky independent pictures. Indeed, he remains fiercely loyal to his hometown, whose currents reverberate deeply within him. “I feel so strongly about shooting in Omaha,” he said. “In nursing and nudging Election along, I made it clear I wanted to shoot here, and the producers said, ‘Well, you can shoot this anywhere.’ But I don’t want to fake it. It’s not the same thing. There’s an atmosphere I want to get and be faithful to – about how people are. I want it to be real, I want it be where I’m comfortable and where deep buttons in me are pressed.”
Election co-producer Albert Berger feels Payne is well attuned to Omaha’s Zeitgeist. “I had never been in Omaha before, but interestingly enough I sensed an attitude that was very much Alexander’s,” Berger said. “There’s a sort of courteous, formal presentation or exterior of normality, with a bizarre, eccentric, biting humor just beneath it, and I saw that time and time again…so I’m not surprised Alexander came from Omaha and he’s making the type of movies he is there. I feel he is very much of that place.”
Payne agrees, but can’t quite pinpoint the source of his sardonic streak other than to speculate: “Maybe historically, the fact the weather is so cruel on the Plains that for survival there’s bred a sense of humor about it all.” If nothing else, his humor is informed by Omaha’s small town-bit city schizophrenia. “There’s always this tight-assed conservative element here that’s very irritating,” he said. “That doesn’t think anything is funny except Marmaduke and Family Circus. But then there’s this whole other Omaha I grew up with of really smart, funny, caustic people.”
His cutting humor has no shortage of targets. In Citizen Ruth he lampooned the hypocrisy of pro life-pro choice extremists. In Election he exposes the hollowness of School-Suburbia USA rituals.
The role of satirist seems to fit Payne well, but he feels his career is too young to assign him a signature style just yet: “I don’t like to analyze it too closely,” he said, “because so far this type of stuff is just what comes naturally to me. And I almost fear that analyzing it too much will make me too self-conscious or make me think there’s no rules. You know? I’m still just figuring it out.”
The Comedy of Imperfection
Election, which Payne and his Citizen Ruth writing collaborator, Jim Taylor, adapted from the soon-to-be-published novel of the same name by Boston writer Tom Perrotta, promises to be Payne’s breakthrough film. Why? Because the material retains the mordant, mercurial sensibility of his debut feature, but is neither likely to be as difficult for its studio (Paramount) to market nor as hard for audiences to stomach as the earlier film was, with its raw-nerve subject matter. Plus, Election stars two young, appealing crossover actors in Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon who should attract the very demographic the film will surely target (ages eighteen to thirty four).
The film, like the book, revolves around a high school teacher, Jim McAllister (Broderick), who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, acts rashly and rigs a student election, setting in motion a series of seriocomic events that change the lives of everyone involved. Broderick should have just the right innocent deadpan persona (like his idol Buster Keaton) for the part. Much of the script’s sly humor stems from normally upstanding folks behaving badly under pressure. As Payne puts it, “All these horrible, pathetic things happen, but it’s not as though any of the characters is bad, they’re just doing it all for the first time. They just don’t know any better.”
For all its strengths, Citizen Ruth never quite fleshed-out the title character, Ruth Stoops. Payne and Taylor used her more as a siphon and symbol to comment on the absurd lengths pro life-pro choice activists go to, rather than develop her as a person with complex emotional shadings. Her escape at the end makes a strong statement, but tells us nothing we don’t already know. While it’s hard to believe anyone with a sense of humor could be offended by Citizen Ruth, the film surely put off some viewers who strongly identify with one side or the other of the abortion issue.
With Election, Payne isn’t shying away from skewering more sacred cows, but is mining a richer vein of Americana than he attempted before. Where Citizen Ruth often settled for broad sketches, Election promises to probe more deeply into the lives of characters and the milieu they inhabit. And, at least as scripted, the new film allows room for its protagonists to grow somewhat through their ordeal.
Payne feels Election, with its fuller palette of colors, should prove to be “a much stronger film” than his first feature. “Citizen Ruth is particular in it’s having fun with stereotypes,” he said. “It’s funny and interesting, but this is a richer piece of material. It’s got a more complex, nuanced human canvas. There’s nothing schematic about it. I mean, once you figure out what’s going on in Citizen Ruth you still might enjoy the film, but you kind of know where it’s heading. This one, you don’t really know what’s going to happen next.” Ask him what Election is all about and he sighs, wearily weighing your question with one of his own: “How to articulate it? I don’t know…It’s very human and it’s very real, It’s about life. It’s like life – I can’t sum it up. I hope always to make movies that can’t be easily summed up.”
Payne doesn’t pander to audiences. His leading characters don’t neatly conform to Post-Modern Hollywood’s idea of winning protagonists. Instead, they’re whimsically, tragically, unpredictably human. And because they’re so authentic they engage us in ways “nice” characters often don’t. Ruth Stoops is a pregnant inhalant addict who’s made a mess of her life and is unrepentant about it. She’s also street-smart and disarmingly honest. Jim McAllister is a philandering hypocrite who takes his hurt out on one of his students. He’s also hard-working and surprisingly vulnerable.
Broderick wanted to do Election because it offered a chance to play “a complicated person, and not a terribly charming one,” he said, adding: “I loved the script. For one thing, it was very literate. A lot of scripts are very hard to get through, but this was a very easy read. It was funny and sad. It made me want to know what was going to happen next. Alexander’s very original, I think. He’s a very careful, detailed director. He’s very intelligent. He’s funny, too.” He also liked Payne’s handling of the material, which in lesser hands could easily have been superficial: “He’s sympathetic to the characters, even when they do stupid things. He doesn’t look down on the characters from some kind of higher moral ground. They’re all very human. He doesn’t categorize people. People aren’t either perfect or evil, smart or stupid, they’re all a mix of things.”
But as Payne well knows, some stodgier segments of Omaha don’t appreciate his irreverent humor. Omaha Public School officials were wary enough to deny him the use of Burke High School for Election. The film’s Neo-Peyton Place school scenes were eventually shot (during normal school hours) at Papillion-LaVista High School. Payne resists any suggestion his comic sensibility is vulgar: “I think, for example, that Citizen Ruth has an amoral protagonist, yet it’s a very moral film. The same thing now with Election. There’s a lot of irresponsible and immoral behavior in the film, but I believe strongly that it’s a very responsible and moral film.”
A Hollywood outsider despite still living in L.A. and getting his financing there (he plans moving to New York City by year’s end), Payne dislikes much of today’s nouveau hip American cinema. “Hollywood, in the last few years, has produced films which take the attitude, ‘Oh, isn’t this cool, we have amoral characters,’” he said. “But in completely unredeeming, nihilistic films that simply anticipate moments of violence, rather than being about people in complex ways, I don’t get much out of nihilism.” He finds most contemporary comedies wanting too. “I’m bored with most American comedies because they’re about nothing. The attitude is, ‘Oh, it’s comedy, it’s just fluff.’ But, in fact, comedy should be about something. It’s just another form of communication about experience and emotion.”
Although Payne is generations removed from legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder, with whom he’s been compared, he greatly admires the writer-director’s acerbic, irony-laced style. In preparation for Citizen Ruth Payne screened Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (about an unscrupulous reporter exploiting a human tragedy). One of his favorite Wilder films is the 1960 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Apartment, whose story of deceit in the bedrooms and boardrooms of middle-class America echoes that of Election, only Payne is substituting schoolrooms for boardrooms. “I think The Apartment is sooooo good,” he said. “People remember it as a cute film about a guy (Jack Lemmon) giving his apartment to his bosses for their afternoon liaisons, but you see it again and you have to take a shower afterwards. It’s genuinely depressing. People see Billy Wilder’s work as cynical and dark and all that, but it’s really at the same time loving and playful with people.”
It’s precisely the same balance Payne tries striking. In Jim McAllister, Payne gives us an Everyman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A man mired in a rut and desperate for a change. Payne describes him this way: “He’s a very American protagonist, somehow. Optimistic. Boyish. Idealistic. Naive. And tragic, because he’s in denial about real things going on in his life and how he really feels about things, and it kind of leads to his downfall.”
He could be describing Jack Lemmon’s character in The Apartment, so alike are the two figures. How appropriate then that Broderick, who shares Lemmon’s intuitive grasp of tragic-comic roles, and Payne, who shares Wilder’s penchant for subversive satire, should collaborate on a film resonating so strongly with the Lemmon-Wilder canon.
Payne, along with Taylor, found a kindred spirit in Perrotta as well. “We found in his novel a starting place, a springboard for what we do best as writers together. It’s very, very close to us. And also there’s a certain sadness about the novel, and Jim and I like to extract comedy from sadness and pain,” Payne said, laughing devilishly. “What I also liked about the novel, and I think this was maybe true of Citizen Ruth too, is that people compromise themselves through really, really good intentions. They all think they’re doing the right thing, and they end up getting very. very compromised morally. One other thing it has in common thematically with Citizen Ruth…is that idea of people’s personal-psycho-sexual situations being worked out in a public arena, especially a political arena.”
He said one of the ways the movie differs from the book is its humor. “It’s a lot funnier than the novel. The novel has a lot of humor in it, but it’s kind of more ruminative. Jim and I always go for the laughs.” In adapting the book, he and Taylor, who lives in New York City, ended up “dramatizing things Perrotta only mentioned in passing. We ended up writing a ton of new stuff. We changed his characters’ names. We took a lot of liberties. When you go to adapt a novel you have to forget the novel. You owe nothing to the novel, yet you remain entirely faithful to it somehow in spirit,” Payne said.
Perrotta, whose book is due out in March from Putnam Publishing, said of the adaptation, “I think they translated my work into this other medium in just a brilliant way.” Of Payne, whom he had a chance to observe on the set during a late November visit to Omaha, he said, “He’s incredibly smart. He seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and film that he carries around quite gracefully. He’s so focused and sharp. I think he’s one of these people who really knows what he wants.”
Election, while still in manuscript form, was brought to Payne and Taylor in 1996 by Berger and his producing partner Ron Yerxa. Berger had had his eye on Payne since seeing the filmmaker’s 1991 UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin. After agreeing to adapt Election, Payne said he and Taylor read the book several more times, noting lines, characters and incidents they wanted to keep or expand. The pair worked on the script throughout ‘96 and completed their final draft last spring.
“By the end, as we’re doing more and more rewrites,” Payne said, “the novel didn’t even exist for us anymore because it (the story) became ours. We can’t even remember anymore what’s in the novel and what we made up.” An important structural element Payne and Taylor kept is the book’s multiple first-person narration (It’s worth noting Wilder used narration to great effect in his films). Much of the film is told from the shifting perspective of four characters (aided by diabolically funny voice-overs), each of whom has a different take on their interwoven imbroglios. Perrotta is delighted the multiple narrative survived the novel-to-screen adaptation: “I was pretty sure when the book got optioned that that particular quality would get lost. But amazingly these guys were able to do this very daring screenplay where they have the voice-overs of different characters that in a way mimics the structure of the book. I think they pulled off a pretty amazing technical feat…and were deeply faithful to the book.”
For Payne, co-opting the novel’s narrative motif “offered a very interesting and fun challenge.” He adds, “The film is covered with voice-over (recorded at Omaha recording studio Pisaurus Productions). I love voice-over in films, and there’s kind of a stigma against it.” That stigma is an artificial one imposed by film executives and by “script experts” like Syd Field. Payne disdains the Syd Field cookie-cutter school of screenwriting: “He’s an idiot. I’m still waiting for that first blockbuster Syd Field film script.”
Making it Real
Ever one to follow his own drummer, Payne dismisses the notion films must look or sound a certain way. It’s why he insisted on making his first two features far away from La-La Land. For Election, he wanted a high school as it really looks, not as Hollywood envisions it.
“The high school movies I’ve seen have all been shot in California. They have Venetian blinds on the windows and really beautiful rays of sunlight coming and all the teachers have really good haircuts and all the students are bright, cheery-faced and look like actors out of Central Casting, and it’s hideous. It’s just fake. In Election all the extras are real students and teachers, even some of the leads. The classrooms, unlike ones in those California-filmed movies, are windowless foundation-blocks with fluorescent light overhead. That’s what schools are and that’s what I wanted to capture – the real thing.” Berger said, “Alexander was sort of relentless in his desire for a truthful, accurate portrayal of high school and of people, with no Hollywood Beverly Hills 90210 bullshit. And he definitely got what he wanted.”
Election production designer Jane Stewart (she also designed Citizen Ruth) said Payne was equally exacting in creating visual cues for each character. To express McAllister’s stuck-in-neutral life, she said, a Dundee-area house was turned into his home. “We tried to reflect older values and an oppressive feeling through things like colors and objects.”
Payne’s search for verisimilitude informs his filmmaking. It’s why he doesn’t adhere to trends.
“I take cues from reality, from observation,” he said, “and not from other movies, even though I watch a lot of movies and I’m a film buff and all that. You have to feel inspired about what you write and what you want to commit to film. When it comes to shoot, all your ideas and what you’re trying to capture has to come from observation. And it becomes a little bit like a fun reportage in that way.”
On Election he immersed himself in the rhythms of Papillion-LaVista High School (Carver High in the film). “After the initial couple of weeks, the teachers and students felt very comfortable seeing us around and we felt very comfortable being there,” he said.
A Journey to Cinema
He loves how filmmaking permits him to explore other realities. “What’s fun about that is that you become like a spy and a witness to all sorts of worlds. Suddenly, you have this excuse to visit a place, but really visit it and really hear people talk about what they do. And if you’re curious about the world and about people, it’s just the greatest job to have.”
Long before becoming a filmmaker, his curiosity led him to Stanford University, where his love for languages spurred an interest in Spanish literature and Latin American history. His studies took him to Spain and Colombia, He’s since returned to Spain again and again. He still keeps in touch with friends he made there in the 1980s. After Election wrapped he vacationed with family in Florida before heading to Spain to “bum around.”
Obsessed with cinema since childhood, Payne collected eight millimeter prints of old movies and shot several short films with a used Super 8 camera. He recalls One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a seminal film in his teens and ironically notes it would probably be difficult to get that picture made today (It was, in fact, a difficult sell then too.) However, Payne didn’t touch a camera again until he was at UCLA, which he attended after graduating from Stanford in 1984. Despite harboring a dream to pursue filmmaking, he didn’t take a single film class at Stanford because he looked upon his undergraduate years as a time “to get an education.”
Once he decided to study film, he considered both UCLA and USC, the West Coast’s two most prestigious film schools. The story of why, after visiting each campus, he chose UCLA is classic Payne:
“What I found was that USC was extremely Hollywood-oriented. It’s a private institution and structured very much as a Hollywood feeder school. You have to compete for the privilege of making an advanced film. I saw a batch of those advanced films when I was down there, and they were extremely formulaic and banal. Extremely well-crafted and very watchable, like Hollywood films, but they were about nothing.
“I went to UCLA, and found it much more wild there. It’s a public school. It seemed like a place to be freer and just explore and do what you want. Most of their student films are pretty experimental and unwatchable, but there’s the attitude that it’s one person, one film. At UCLA they popped a Super 8 camera in your hands and said, ‘Go shoot something. We’ll teach you technique later, but now, go fuck-up and just shoot from your gut.’ And you work harder, of course, than you ever worked in your life, like you always do in films.
“They know there’s many people like me who haven’t had access to filmmaking before, and they just want you to come with ideas and experiences. That’s the important thing. It’s such a neat philosophy, but it’s changed since then. Everything has gone to the right in our country, including film school.”
There he came under the influence of top-flight editor Richard Marks (whose credits include the current James L. Brooks film As Good As It Gets).
“My editing teacher and in a large degree my film mentor was Richard Marks. He’s someone who taught me a lot about filmmaking and with whom I still keep in contact.”
Payne’s intense fifty-minute UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, played festivals and pegged him as a real “comer” in the industry. It led to a Universal development deal that eventually fizzled. Later, he teamed with Taylor and together they wrote short films for cable TV. Then they hit upon the idea for Citizen Ruth in ‘92 and, after surviving one dead-end producer, they finally saw the project to fruition. Election should once again prove Payne has delivered on his early promise.
Refining and Progressing
Payne is currently in L.A. working with editor Kevin Tent on Election. He’s also supervising some fantasy sequences (involving pictures in a yearbook coming to life) being filmed by a West Coast animation firm.
MTV Films, which is co-producing Election with Berger and Yerxa’s Bona Fide Films and independent producer Keith Samples, has been lobbying Payne with music suggestions. Payne is adamant about not bowing to MTV pressure. “I’ve been telling them, ‘Wait till we get into the editing before you make any record deals. I have a lot of ideas. I don’t want to just put hit songs in there. I don’t want this film to be a commercial for hit tunes. I think that’s really terrible and actually dates the film.”
Payne insists on creative control and has largely gotten it thus far. He feels the reason he’s escaped studio meddling is because film executives consider comedy somewhat mysterious – “that it has to be a certain way or there’s some magic to it.” Then too his budgets have been small enough so as to keep his films “under the radar” of prying producers. Although the Election budget (under ten million dollars) surpassed that of his first feature, Payne said, “My stuff is still considered risky enough that even though Citizen Ruth was a critical success, I’m still not at the point where I’m demanding anything approaching a big budget.”
He’s at an enviable place now in his career. But even as his reputation grows and his projects increase in scale, he remains close to his by-the-seat-of-his-pants roots.
“Every film I’ve made has been bigger than the one before,” he said. “But I’m always surprised at how similar it (the process) is from film to film. You encounter the same basic filmmaker problems: How to get the actors to do what you want them to do. How to bring out their best with the camera. Hoping it doesn’t rain. Hoping it does rain. Hoping it cuts together. Hoping the music works with it.
“I’ve taken a step-by-step progression and I feel a sense of apprenticeship to the craft. I’m learning little by little. And I think as a filmmaker it’s important to somehow keep in mind that even with all those trucks and all those technicians and all that money being spent, that it’s you with a Super 8 camera. And to keep always an intimate relationship between yourself and what you’re shooting. Don’t let any of that other stuff bother you. The moment before saying, ‘Action,’ look around the set, see where the camera is, and just ask yourself in a split second, Is this really, exactly what I want, even if I’m wrong? Yes. ‘Action.’”
Cut. Print It. That’s a wrap.